Bringing the Economy Home

Bottom Rung: Two Idaho Workers Talk About Life On Low Wages

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

John was an IT director 10 years ago. Now he spends his workdays behind the register of a Boise store.

Wages are lower in Idaho than in nearly ever other state. That’s often chalked up to Idaho’s rural nature and low cost of living. But recently, the state has lost ground.

A federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that Idaho has the largest share of workers earning minimum wage in the country. And that share — 7.7 percent — has grown rapidly.

All this week, we’ll explain the trends that are playing out at the bottom of Idaho’s wage scale. Today, we’re asking: What is it like to earn minimum wage or close to it in Idaho? 

It can be difficult to find minimum wage earners who are willing to talk to a reporter. Supervisors at fast food chains and retail establishments turned me down. One worker decided against an interview after his boss threatened his job. Finally, I selected a stretch of road in Boise that’s lined with strip malls, restaurants and gas stations, and started talking to people.

Hailey, 19, agreed to answer my question. I agreed not to use her last name so that she wouldn’t risk trouble with her employer.

“Where I work, actually, it’s through a temp agency,” she explains. “We’re never hired on as full-time.”

Hailey is small, blonde and delicate looking, but she does hard work in the warehouse of a local charitable organization. She unloads trucks filled with donations, and spends a lot of time sorting used clothes. She doesn’t get benefits. Coworkers come and go. She’s stayed for a year, longer than most.

Asked what her salary pays for, she lists off the small rent payment she makes to her stepmother, plus groceries, gas, car insurance and her phone bill. Then she explains she also has to pay the costs of drug court. That’s the program she was funneled into more than a year ago, when she was addicted to prescription drugs and committed a felony.

“It’s an amazing program,” Hailey says. “It’s saved my life. But it’s an expensive program, and it’s one I have to pay for on my own.”

We’re talking at a picnic table outside a counseling facility where she attends classes and likes to spend time. I ask what her experience of work, so far, makes her think about work in general.

“Currently, it’s just a way to get by,” she says. “But what I hope for it to be in the future – I want to help other people. I want to make a difference. I want to feel like I’ve done something of meaning in this life.”

She wants to work with kids, and help them avoid what she’s been through. She’d like to start college in January. So far, she’s put away $300. She’ll have to keep saving: A single three-credit class at the College of Western Idaho costs $408.

A Life In Two Paths

Hailey’s story is one we might expect to hear in a series about low-wage workers. She’s young and aiming for a better life. But there are other stories, too. John is 52, a tidy dresser with an open smile. He works as a clerk at a small retail shop in Boise. As with Hailey, I agreed to not use John’s last name.

“My life’s kind of split into two distinct paths,” he says. “One of them was a military path that I did in the reserve components, and I served for 20 years. And the other path I took, on the civilian side, was more in a computer background – information technology.”

In 2003, he says, he was an IT director making $80,000 a year. Now, he makes between $7 and $8 an hour, and no benefits. To get by on that, he rents a room in a house. He can’t afford a car, so he rides his bike, or takes the bus.

John tells me he wound up in this position over the course of a decade. He was laid off, but got work with a web development company. When the recession hit, he was laid off again. He was already in debt. Before long, he lost his home and filed for bankruptcy.

John says he’s not unhappy; he says he’s on a “Zen-like journey.” But he’s realistic.

“If you’re working just to make ends meet, there is no real quality of life,” he says. “You’re working to satisfy some debt of some sort. It’s not an environment that lends itself to optimism, because you’re constantly worried about keeping your job and just making a living.”

John says his financial situation affects everything, even the friends he makes. “We call ourselves ‘the working poor,’ for lack of a better term,” he says, with a resigned laugh. That’s his social circle now, he tells me, not the “management types” he used to know.

“It changes,” he says. It’s a succinct description of life as he sees it.

His thinking has changed, too. He worries, now more than ever before, about the gap between people who have money and people who don’t.

“This imbalance that’s keeping people poor, it’s only going to go so far!” he exclaims. “You can only stretch that rubber band so far, and something’s going to snap!”

For John, there are better days ahead.  When he turns 60, he’ll start receiving his military retirement. He daydreams about moving to South America, and living better on less. But most low-wage workers don’t have that reprieve.

Over the next few days, we’ll ask: “Why?”  Why does Idaho have so many low-wage jobs? At least in part, the answers lie in Idaho’s shifting demographics, economic base and policy priorities.

When we checked in with John recently, he told us he’s been promoted to assistant manager.  That will mean $150 more in monthly income, and vacation benefits.


  • dude352

    sounds like everyone “deserves” to be rich? was entitlement always a virus like this?

    • mtomm

      Everyone entitled not to have to work 2-3 jobs in order to make ends meet. Nobody here is talking about getting rich.

    • cisco01010010

      No one is saying everyone deserves to be rich. However, everyone deserves to at the least make a living wage. To be able to have opportunities afforded them (whether or not they choose to take advantage of said opportunities). To have quality, affordable healthcare without worrying about filing for bankruptcy. You say entitlement is a virus? What about big banks mooching off the system?

    • Nat2283

      If by “rich” you mean making enough money to pay rent somewhere so I can move out of my parent’s home, then yes. Frankly, at this point, I would feel rich if I was making even $10/hr…I might even go out and do such decadent things as buying an article of clothing somewhere other than the thrift shop, maybe a new pair of comfortable shoes….for work. Or actually fill the gas tank in my car, instead of eeking by on $10 increments. Let them eat cake, or brioche if you prefer the correct translation. At least my college degree is useful for snark on the internet.

  • Scarlettdragon

    I work in Northern Idaho and it is the same here. You need two to three jobs just to make ends meet. We live paycheck to paycheck. What is funny is that rent and food cost have gone up, but not our wages

  • hardworker

    Two words, “personal responsibility.” There’s no reason in this state to have to make minimum wage. There are tons of ways to make money, you just have to work hard to make it happen and live a clean life. In other words, grow up and quit expecting others to provide for you.

    • Unreal

      Can’t believe someone actually said this.

      • jana warner

        Believe it, this the conservative republican response these days…. Saddens me that we have become a nation so devoted to money. We all just want to live bare minimum a comfortable life. After all, is this not the American dream. Nope, in order to keep up, we must work long hours, multiple part time jobs. It is no wonder the younger generation is not having as many kids as they did back then.

    • bobby

      This comment has been removed because it didn’t meet our discussion guidelines.

    • plumkell

      You can’t get a job that doesn’t exist. As someone who has lived in another state, I cannot believe how little people get paid in Idaho.

    • Ian

      It’s clear (and ironic) that you still live with your parents, otherwise you’d know what “bills” and “rent” are.

    • Nat2283

      ……says no one ever who has actually been laid off or underemployed. Ah, the delusion of youth and/or privilege. I miss those days, when I believed life was actually fair and I’d get out of it what I put in….

    • Honesty

      Before you start disparaging someone else, try walking in their shoes for a while. The problem with the belief in the ‘rags to riches’ parable is that there is an underlying moralism – if you are poor, you’re just not trying hard enough. Being poor is not the same as being lazy, drug addicted or stupid. You try living on minimum wage as a primary wage earner and choose between working 60 hours and getting ahead of the bills and leaving your kids alone for an extra 20 hours a week. My mom did have to choose; she chose working two jobs over taking public assistance. My sister started using drugs and alcohol then, when she was just 15 and I was 6, and no matter how smart and talented she was, she can’t go back and make better choices. She’s lived her life at minimum wage or less, her kids grew up in a much worse environment than we had growing up. I am darned proud of what her kids made of their lives, but what would her live be like if mom had been home to make sure that a 13 year old girl didn’t get seduced by the wrong sort of lifestyle?

  • mtomm

    My question is this: What would these people be earning if there was no minimum wage?

  • sad-idahoan

    As an Idahoan, I can attest to this. Jobs are few and far between down here in Boise. Sure, knowing where to look helps, but a lot of places are fully staffed. I’m a college student so I don’t have the option of working a 9-to-5, but part-time at minimum wage does not cut it. I have to have 2-3 part-time jobs just to pay the bills. I’m hard-working and dedicated, but that doesn’t help when there’s no work to be found.

    And to “hardworker,” I don’t expect anyone to provide for me. I’m very self-sufficient. But “working hard” and “living a clean life” doesn’t pay the bills when you still only make minimum wage.

  • Roy-in-Boise

    Gee-wiz … How did this happen? Idahoans voted in Right-to-work to keep those nasty labor unions from back east out of our fair state. Secondly, they listen to all of the “Family Values” candidates and voted them in. So why are we surprised? Common’ Idaho you asked for it and now you got it, so quit your whining and enjoy this Libertarian, self reliant nirvana that you’ve created.

    • Nat2283

      I didn’t vote for any of that! Can I continue whining? ( ;

  • Scott

    I’m surprised that John can’t get a good paying IT job in the area. There is a shortage of software developers in the Treasure Valley. Many openings are going unfilled. The Idaho Tech Council Software Alliance was created to help address this shortage. I wish I could understand more. Perhaps I could help.

  • I have lived here all of my life–the wages have always sucked. It is a fact of life that if you want to make in this state, you need more than one job. Even the educated get paid less here. As for the jerk below who commented on personal responsibility, grow up. If opportunities aren’t there, then there is no way to ‘pull yourself up’ or take personal responsibility. Look it up. It’s documented–the American dream is dead–if you are poor or low income the chances are you’ll remain poor or low income no matter how hard you try.

  • OldGrayMare

    Idaho: The”Right-to-Work – for Less” state. Been there, done that, as a single parent working two jobs just to have a roof that didn’t leak and healthy small meals for my child. We didn’t starve, but I was really skinny for quite a while so that my kid could be fed decently. With no insurance (that’s an “evil union demand”), we were just lucky that no medical emergency happened. YOU try raising even one child properly on minimum wage!

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